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The Sunday Independent, October 9th 2011
Much was expected of Colm Tóibín’s second play Testament, a co-production between the Ulster Bank Theatre Festival and Landmark Productions at the Project, and much has been delivered.
It would be easy to say simply that the piece is a monologue play comprising the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of the Virgin Mary, had such a text been chronicled. But it is much, much more. It is subversive, feminist, thought-provoking, and human rather than pedagogic. The result is inevitably blasphemous, and all the more dramatic for it.
Toibin puts his Virgin at Ephesus at the end of her life, where she has been hiding out in the care of a guardian appointed by whom we are not sure; there are echoes that it may be John, the Beloved Apostle, to whom that duty is given in the accepted texts. Except that, as Mary tells it, she was abandoned by her son, even to the point of being denied by him when she confronted him at the marriage at Cana. Maybe he was trying to protect her from association with a suspect criminal as he had already become one; or maybe he was just too obsessed with his self-appointed mission: Toibin leaves us to decide. But Mary is at Ephesus because the Temple of Artemis is there: and she is a worshipper of Artemis, and of all the women gods. She trusts in them, believing that they will understand her femaleness and its motivations.
And she has nothing to say to the two chroniclers who have cornered her all these years later, demanding accounts for their ledgers of the various events in her son's life that will verify and authenticate the "enormity" of what they have decided to do. When she tells them her son is gone, they smile and say he will be back, conquering death itself; they want to hear of her husband and refuse to accept when she says "I have no husband."
At Cana she saw the man nicknamed "The Strangler". He watched her throughout the wedding, and she left, even though it was in her cousin's house, and sought refuge with Martha and Mary, the two sisters of the boy Lazarus whose bringing back to life had begun all the trouble. And she knew the Strangler was there, not just for her son, but for her. She saw him at the hill where her son was being executed; and although she had been determined to stay to the terrible end, she escaped before the final moment: imagining the Strangler's hands crushing the life out of her own throat was too much. Now, she tells the Chroniclers, if the claims they are planning are true, and it brought redemption for all humanity to come, "it was not worth it": because even though she skulked away in terror and abandoned the god under whose law her son was condemned, she knew the hideous cost of that so-called redemption. So now she hides her little silver statue of Artemis, who understands.
Toibin has written an amazingly insightful work: his Mary blames nobody for what has happened. She does not rejoice in her apostasy, merely despises those who are already the manipulators of history, the men with the tablets of a religion founded on fantasy, exaggeration and duplicity. And she wants none of it, or them.
The playing is a stunning achievement for Marie Mullen under Garry Hynes' direction: the two manage to keep this cataclysm of destroyed faith banked down so that while it merely hints at the furnace beneath, that hint is enough to scorch those who hear it: an outcome, to add to the blasphemy, never achieved by the accepted writers of Testament. Let loose, it implies, Mary would have overturned the world.
Designed by Francis O'Connor and lit by Peter Mumford with sound by Gregory Clarke, this is one of those productions which leave you breathless at an integrity of vision, realisation and performance.